Merope, Maybe : 18 / 19

 

Merope, Maybe : 18 / 19

[ Melanie Brown’s Switcher Universe ]
by Iolanthe Portmanteaux

 


"Après moi, le déluge!"
— King Louis XV


 

As you might easily imagine, I had a hard time concentrating on my work after lunch.

I did manage to get my work done, though, in patches. My brain would whirl in anticipation of tonight's meeting with Merope... but after ten or fifteen minutes lost in the future, the thread of imagination would weaken. At that point, I'd come back to the present and get back to work for a spell.

Old work habits kicked in, and in particular a phrase that I coined for myself: Being professional means doing your job well, no matter how you feel.

I came up with that gem after a conversation with a co-worker who used to play college football. He mentioned one morning that he spent a half-hour each day psyching himself up before coming to work.

"What do you mean, psyching yourself up?" I asked.

He looked at me as though I was from another planet, then explained, as if talking to a child, "I need passion to do my job. If you don't have passion, it isn't worthwhile." He shook his head, put his hand on my shoulder, and said, "You wouldn't understand."

Passion? I didn't need to have passion for my job. I didn't *want* to have passion for my job. It's a job!

The idea of having do mind games with yourself every morning—! I couldn't conceive of it. In my mind — only in my mind, never to his face — I told him, Okay, passion is fine, but I've got something better: it's called being professional.

Even so, in spite of my slogan, in spite of my good intentions, I was all over the place. Still, I kept coming back to my work. Today I needed to get organized, to get my system accounts into order. My to-do list crept onto two pages, and started growing branches.

There were several programming projects that needed my attention: fixing bugs and adding features, mainly. I decided to put those efforts off until Monday, knowing that once I dove into a program, it could be hours before I'd surface.

Then, each time I'd raise my head and take a breath, I'd think about tonight.

I had told Merope and her whispering friend that I was bringing someone with me. One person, one friend. Was I, though? I'd only said it on the spur of the moment, because I was irritated by the whispering voice over old Merope's shoulder.

On a separate piece of paper, I started a second list: I created a to-do list for tonight. The first item was a question: Who to bring? In my head I replayed that whispering little-girl voice: "Did she read that? Did she read that? The bitch!"

I scowled at the memory.

Dave, whose desk obliquely faces mine, caught my abrupt change of expression, and called out, "Something wrong, there, Merope? Anything I can help you with?"

"No, Dave, I'm good. Thanks for asking."

He nodded, pleased with himself.

Then, for some reason, it suddenly struck me: The voice, the person with old Merope — It must to be Laura! It *had* to be! Laura, the girl from the processing center, the eighteen-year-old who ended up in her boyfriend's body.

I contemplated the daisy chain. There couldn't be many people from Harmish behind me on the chain...

Laura, Pete, and the homeless guy in the blue shorts — they all came before me. They all came before Merope.

Laura and Pete got switched on Thursday evening. I got switched on Friday, after lunch.

Merope came before me, and now she was a man... So what did that mean? Which man was she? At a minimum, the Switcher hit Laura, an unknown man, Merope, me. In that order.

I gasped. I gaped with the sudden realization. Dave, noticing, sat up straighter and was about to ask me—

I pre-empted him. "Dave, it's fine. I just figured out some tricky logic in one of my programs. Just, um, chill, okay?"

"Okay," he acquiesced. "Just trying to be helpful!"

"Dave, if I need help, you'll be the first person I'll ask, okay?"

He nodded and returned to his work.

I took my smaller to-do list, the one for tonight, and at the bottom of the sheet wrote:

Blue-shorts guy => Pete => Laura => Boyce? => Merope => me

It made sense, right? Boyce being the guy who wrote the embarrassing love letter. I must have unconsciously understood that when I mentioned the love letter on the phone. No wonder the girl was stung when I brought it up!

I returned to my work for a few minutes, until, again, my mind strayed. I took tonight's list and wrote down all the items I had to bring; all of Merope's stuff that I was giving back to her.

I'd need to stop at an ATM to make up the money I'd spent. I didn't need Merope's money, and I sure didn't feel like it was mine to keep. Between Femke's hospitality and the money Mukti and Cleo had given me, I'd have no problem waiting for my paychecks to begin. For money, luckily, happily, I was fine.

ATM, then: I wrote ATM on my list.

As far as the fake IDs, I'd already cut them in pieces and scattered them in various trash bins around town. There was no way I could feel badly about that. Besides, it would be impossible for the now-male Merope to use them!

There, I stopped, I blew out a breath and tapped the page with my pen. The next item to consider was the USB drive.

What should I do with it? Should I keep it? Should I send it to the FBI?

I felt my lips twist sideways in disdain. The FBI didn't want to hear about it when I took the trouble of driving out to see them. Instead, they treated me like some sort of loon.

No, I wasn't sending the USB drive to the FBI. In the unlikely event that they asked me about it, I'll tell them that I tossed it. Or lost it. Or — better yet — I'll tell them that I mailed it to them. Let them think that they are the ones who lost it. Yeah. In fact, they didn't ask me to bring it to them. They told me to send it. Not as though they cared, though. "Yeah, send it: we'll put it in a file somewhere."

No, thanks. If the FBI didn't give a damn about it, I might as well give the USB drive back to Merope. Maybe the gesture would help me find out what the damn cylinders were all about.

And then... Laura. I wrote Laura? on my list. I was pretty curious to find out who was Laura now. Was Boyce having as much trouble adapting to his new gender as old Laura was having? It sounded that way. The intense, angry fire in her whispers and commands... she sounded crabby as hell. Resentful. She sounded like a spoiled teenager: seething, offended by everything. I pictured a little girl with balled-up fists, stamping her little foot. Hard to picture the whispering witch as the guy who penned the abject love letter.

Okay, that's Laura.

My next question for myself was: who to bring tonight? Rowan? Femke?

They said "no cops" — and Rowan does look like a cop; he absolutely does — but who are they to tell me who I can and cannot bring?

Then again, I don't want to scare them off. And... I want them to talk to me. I don't want to simply hand over a goodie bag and watch them leave.

So, no to Rowan.

Femke? Okay, Femke is formidable. She's loyal and true and I know she has my back. I love having her on my side, but at the same time she can be a loose cannon. A very loose cannon. She could say anything, even something unintentionally offensive that ends up shutting down the whole negotation.

So no to Femke.

Rowan and Femke weren't my only possibilities, though. Javier, for instance. Yeah, he would come, I'm pretty sure, but no. Not Javier. He's too focused on justice, on doing things by the book. I was pretty sure that tonight would go way off book. So, no: not Javier.

One name, one possibility, got me thinking: Mukti. Mukti might be a great choice! He'd definitely provide a jovial, calming influence. He radiates trust. Also, he's pretty good at reading his audience, and he definitely doesn't look like a cop.

On the other hand, he could easily go off on a long tangent, one that prevents me from getting answers to my own questions. Or... he might — I thought with a laugh — he might, right out of the blue, grab somebody's shoulder and give them a Vulcan death squeeze.

I stroked my chin. Probably best to go by myself.

But all way up to Braeke's Height?

Braeke's Height. If you're not from around here, or not interested in leaf-peeping, The name probably means nothing to you.

"Leaf-peeping" is all about traveling to view the change in autumn foliage. If you're into that, you've probably seen pictures taken from Braeke's Height. It's iconic. The Height is a hill that rises to the northwest of Harmish. It has an incredible, far-as-the-eye-can-see view of gentle hills and forests teeming with deciduous trees. There's a panoramic lookout at the top with a huge parking lot. By day, it's beautiful. At sunset, it's spectacular. At night, though, you can't see a damn thing.

In fact, there are some local jokes about "the view from Braeke's Height at night" — not very funny jokes, but they underline the fact that once the sun is gone, the Height becomes a desolate, deserted — even spooky — location. It's a long drive and a steep climb to get there, so no one goes there. No one uses it as a Lover's Lane. No one even does drug deals up there. It's too far; too out of the way.

Probably the old Merope — or more likely, the new Laura — wanted to meet up there so we'd be sure of being alone. The sunset crowd would evaporate once twilight begins to fade.

I didn't want to make the drive up and back, especially in the dark, but I was too curious to say no to old Merope's invitation. There was so much I wanted to ask her! So much I wanted to know!

I jotted my questions on my to-do list.

However, in spite of the plan, in spite of my to-do list, the situation changed at around three that afternoon. Abruptly, the winds reversed direction and began to blow, hard. Gray clouds down from Canada covered the sky and within minutes were replaced by a dark, opaque canopy. In a matter of minutes, we moved from brilliant, beautiful day to bleak, nearly dismal, night.

I stood at the window, watching the coming storm fold itself over the scene. My nose wasn't pressed against the glass, but all ten fingertips rested against it. When nature gets its back up, it's hard to look away. The transformation was dramatic, almost melodramatic. As I watched, people scurried out of our office park, like mice by the dozen escaping a pack of feral cats. They ran to their cars, even though the rain hadn't started. They fumbled open their car doors, hopped inside, and took off in a rush. The parking lot was quickly emptying out.

Flee from the wrath to come, I told myself... and hearing myself, reacted: Who's being melodramatic now?

In any case...

"Hey," I called to my co-workers, "People are leaving the building. Look at them, how they're running! All the good spaces are opening up!"

"Will ya look at that!" Dave interjected.

I continued: "I'm going down to move my car closer. I'm gonna grab my umbrella while I'm at it."

Dave consulted his phone. He gave a low whistle. "There's a severe weather advisory." He read some of the details, then called out, "Hey, Leon, do you mind if we take off? It's going to get pretty bad out there. All of us are set up to work remotely, anyway. Oh, well, I don't know about you, Merope — but the rest of us, yeah."

"Yes, go," Leon agreed, after looking out the window and consulting his phone. "Some of you have a long drive ahead... so yeah, take off now; see if you can beat the rain."

No one needed to be told twice. In less than a minute they were gone, leaving me alone with Leon.

"You should go, too," he said. "From the sound of things, if you don't go now, you could end up spending the night here." He rolled his eyes. "NOT a great option. Take off, now. Go. You don't want to get stuck somewhere."

"Yeah, thanks, Leon." I agreed. "I'm off."

"By the way," he said as I gathered my things, "Just so you know: On Monday we're going to put your photo on the company website."

"Just mine?" I asked, curious, half-laughing.

"No, of course not. That would be weird, and probably... well, anyway, no. We're creating a new page for our coding team. It was Carrie's idea."

I chuckled.

"The thing is, we can't show *you* off without putting the other mugs — the rest of the coders — up there."

"Makes sense," I said.

"Also — and again, just so you know — I've gotten some feedback from your contacts with our clients—"

"Already? I haven't even worked a full day yet! What do they say?"

"Well, it's all positive. That fact that you're a young Cobol programmer helps sell the idea that the language is far from dead."

I nodded. "I get that."

"And of course, I shouldn't say, but they're excited by the fact that you're female. Some of them were pretty curious about, um, about your physical appearance, you could say."

"My what?" I chuckled.

"They wanted to know whether you're attractive." He told me in as even, as neutral, a tone as he could manage.

"Our clients asked you whether I'm good-looking?"

"No, of course not! That would be entirely inappropropriate! They tried to find ways to ask without asking, if you get my meaning. And I wouldn't — I didn't — answer the, uh, the, uh, unasked question."

I grunted assent, but honestly I didn't see how anyone could "ask without asking." Still, it hardly mattered.

He raised his hand to pat me on the shoulder, but stopped himself mid-gesture. He ran his hand through his hair instead. "Anyway... go, get out of here! I'm leaving in a minute. You should leave now, too!"

 


 

I don't know how it's possible for one drop of rain to fall at a time, but it happens. As I approached my car, one big, fat drop landed with a splat on the parking lot, not ten feet in front of me. The rest of the ground was bone dry. A second drop landed loudly off to my right. A third one struck the back of my hand as I unlocked my car door.

I settled myself in my car, arranging my bag on the passenger seat, fastening my seat belt, putting the key in the ignition, and then the deluge began.

In a slow build-up, one full, heavy drop after another hit my windshield, staccato, building rapidly in tempo: plop! plop! plop-plop! plop-plop-plop-plop! plop-plop plippity-plop-plop! until the god of rain grew tired of teasing. He gave up even the pretense of restraint and bombarded my car, the road, the landscape, and all the known world in river of endless rain.

"Oh, Noah!" I groaned. "Wherefore art thou, Noah?"

Clearly, there was no shortage of water up there in the sky, and whatever force of magic or nature that usually kept it suspended, well, today was their holiday. Gallons of water, buckets of water, tons of water — nothing held them back. The invisible dam in the sky left its spillway off the latch, and Greater Harmish was in for the drenching of a decade.

The rain came heavy and thick. It came constant, not in waves. The air was super-saturated. Visibility was, for all intents, zero. In spite of that, I started my car and slowly moved forward until I reached the row of bushes at the edge of the parking lot. I turned right and kept the hedge visible at my left shoulder until I found the exit to the road.

I've driven in dense, thick fog. I've driven into the wind in a heavy snowstorm. Both experiences were bad. Both experiences were frightening, but let me tell you: torrential rain is far worse. At least in the fog and the snow you can see something, even if it's terrifyingly close. Rain, on the other hand, not only cut visibility, it also distorts whatever comes close enough to be seen — it's like putting on a pair of coke-bottle glasses. Shapes, when there are shapes, get pulled, twisted, and grotesquely elongated like images on stretchy film. I almost said like fun-house mirrors, but unfortunately fun-house mirrors show an image much closer to reality.

Well, there was ONE thing I could see; one category of things: I could see the iights from other cars. White headlights. Red tail lights. I followed the car in front of me. He seemed to be going in the right direction, my direction.

In any case, even if I was going the wrong way, still, I was going somewhere. Stopping was not an option, until I got a better idea of where I was. I didn't want to stop in the middle of the road, if that's where I was.

Leon's comment about getting stuck at the office began to sound downright inviting.

Eventually the car in front of me led me under an overpass, which gave a brief respite from the incessant drumming. At last I could see! There wasn't any room to stop, though: every bit of parking at the curbside was taken by drivers who'd already given up and stopped here to wait out the rain.

Me, though? I knew a better place. I knew this overpass. I knew where I'd gotten to, and where I should go. It wasn't far.

In about a thousand feet I'd come to the Harmish train station. Now that my windscreen and my brain were clear, I set my GPS for the station parking lot. Even if *I* couldn't see, the GPS could.

Of course, I should have done that earlier — right from the start — but I guess I was taken too much by surprise.

Slowly, gingerly, I passed the car in front of me, left the shelter of the overpass, and dove back into the downpour.

My nerves taut, my eyes straining, I came at last to the parking lot entrance, and pulled inside. Blessed relief! Gratefully I turned off my wipers and looked for a parking space. The first two levels were full, but the third level was not. About three-quarters of the spaces were free.

Struck by a sudden idea, I drove up the fourth level. It was practically empty.

I picked a spot and got out of the car. I took a few moments to shake off the experience. The drive here was brief, but very intense.

Then I called Merope. Old Merope.

 


 

"Hi," I greeted her, "I'm the New Merope."

She actually laughed, which was a huge relief. "Okay," she replied. "Do you go by Merope now? Do you call yourself Merope Goddard?"

"Yes, I kind of have to. I used to be a man. My name was Anson. It's not a name that works for a girl."

"No." She thought for a moment, and offered "Ansonia?"

"That's a town in Connecticut," I told her. "And no. Just no."

"Hmm," she mused — or he mused. Old Merope's male voice was far too masculine for she.

"Okay," he said. "I felt a little weird using his name, but I guess you can me Boyce. Okay?"

"Sure," I agreed. "I think it makes things easier."

"I guess!"

"Yeah. So, Boyce, you-Boyce, did you switch with the Boyce who wrote the love letter?"

"Oh my God! Did you read that? Why did you read that? It was private!"

"Yes, sorry! I was looking for clues, to understand who you are... who I am now."

"Well, you're not me!" he contested, a little hotly.

"Sorry, but — not that I *want* to be, but I am you now." He was silent, digesting this, so I asked, "Did you go to a processing center? Or check in with anyone who deals with Switcher victims?"

"No. Boyce said not to."

"I see. Is Boyce there now? Are you two together?"

He sighed. "No. He — she — went out. She's on her period. It started last night, while she was sleeping. She really freaked out. I told her I would go get everything she needs, but no! You would not BELIEVE how stubborn he — she — can be! It's like... it's like she constantly wants to speak to the manager or something, do you know what I mean?"

I smiled to myself, but didn't comment. I asked, "Where did she go?"

"CVS."

"Um, oh God. Boyce... do you think she will actually complain to the manager at CVS?"

"About her period? I, uh — oh, God! Probably! Yes, I think she will!"

The two of us burst into laughter. I was just catching my breath when he cooed, "But it's not funny!" and *that* set the two of off again.

"Okay, look," I said. "The reason I called you is this: the weather is horrible, and as much as I want to meet you, there is no way I am driving all the way up to Braeke's Height in the dark in this rain."

"Yeah, it wasn't my idea—"

"Once the rain stops, whenever the rain stops, I have to go home to get your things. I have your pen, the expensive pen, the love letter, your monopoly pieces—"

"Oh!"

"—your money—"

"My money?" He sounded both surprised and hopeful. "Yes, you said yesterday—"

"Right. The Switcher didn't take it. I spent a little, but I'll stop at an ATM and replace that—"

"You're going to give me my money? All of it?"

"Well, yeah. It isn't mine."

"That's really nice of you."

"And I have the USB drive."

"Good. Boyce will be happy about that. But you really don't have the prototypes?"

"The cylinders? No, I told you earlier: the Switcher took them."

 


 

The rain lasted a solid three hours. Near the end I felt so hungry that I ventured across the open breezeway into the train station, looking for something to devour. The selection was embarrassingly small. I ended up settling for a three-for-two deal on hot dogs, but only managed to eat one and a half.

The first bite was fine. It was fun. I thought, wow, I haven't had a hot dog in so long!

Soon after, revulsion took over. I tossed the remaining dog bits into the trash. Luckily or unluckily, the horrible taste demolished my hunger.

I wandered the train station until the rain stopped. It was just after six-thirty.

Femke and Rowan were home when I got there. They took little notice of me until — after quickly changing into jeans, a t-shirt, and sneakers — I headed for the door.

"Hey, where are you off to?" Femke called.

"I'm going to meet Merope — the old Merope," I said. "And I've got to go, right now."

"Alone?" Femke and Rowan said at once. "We'll come with you!"

"It might be dangerous," Rowan cautioned.

"We could even call Javier," Femke offered in an artful tone.

I took a breath, about to explain myself — then thought better of it. "See yas!" I crooned, and took off out the door, before they had the time to follow.

 


 

The fourth level of the parking garage was still virtually empty when I returned. Merope arrived soon after me, driving a Benz. It must have been garaged during the rain, because — not only was it dry, I noticed that it was a little dusty, a little dirty. It could use a quick drive through a car wash. Or a drive in the rain. But... oh, well. Not my problem.

The two of stood behind her yellow Corolla. I tapped the trunk and said, "I was going to ask you whether you wanted your car, but it doesn't look like you need it."

"Naw," he said. "That's Boyce's car, obviously."

"How's she doing?" I asked.

"Well... I guess you wouldn't know this, but when Boyce got switched he ended up in the body of some random eighteen-year-old girl. She's actually really cute! Unfortunately that makes a huge contrast to Boyce's character, which is the exact opposite. And he's not adjusting to being female very well."

"Ah," I responded. Was the daisy chain complete at last? "Is the eighteen-year-old girl named Laura?"

"Yes! How on earth did you know?"

"I met her and her boyfriend Pete at the Switcher processing center. The old Laura ended up in her boyfriend's body, and she isn't adjusting well, either." Something Mukti said came to mind: "A friend of mine told me that the Switcher, even when he doesn't physically hurt people, he does a violence that sometimes has no remedy."

"That's very poetic," Boyce rejoined, a little drily. But it did affect her. He looked off in the distance, thinking. "I love Boyce, but now that his— his character is, you know, distilled or whatever, into this young woman's body... I'm seeing that he's really a big ball of resentments and complaints..."

He broke off. I waited a few beats, then asked, "So, what about you? Are you adjusting?"

He gave a little shrug and a little smile. "I'm okay. It's really different, being a guy. And my life up to now hasn't been so great." He lifted his arms as if showing off himself. "It's actually not bad, being a guy. In fact, it's a better than not bad. So far, I'm liking it. I feel like... people finally take me seriously for a change." He hesitated and studied my face for a moment. "Can I tell you something? It's a little embarrassing and stuff, but..."

"Go ahead."

"I really like having a penis," he confided. "I really do. It's like, the wildest add-on you can imagine." He leaned close, and grinning, told me, "I just want to piss on everything, everywhere. Do you know what I mean?"

"That's hilarious," I replied, chuckling.

"Did you feel that way, when you were a man?"

"Uh — did I feel that way? Oh God. Um, well hey — I get it. I understand the feeling. Hey, uh, did you know that Freud, when he talked about penis envy, he said it was about women not being able to put out a fire by—"

"—by peeing on it?" he was incredulous. I nodded. Scandalized, he cried, "Gross! That is the weirdest, most dumb-ass thing I've ever heard!"

"Is it?" I asked. "It kinda goes right along with what you just said."

"Pffft!" he shook his head.

"Okay — changing the subject: let me give you your stuff." I took a clear plastic bag out of my car — the one from the car wash — and handed it to him. It contained the envelope full of money, the Monopoly tokens ("You didn't need to give me those!"), the love letter, the USB drive, and the expensive pen.

Boyce ran his fingers over the pen's length, and frowned when he touched the cap. "Did you put this in your mouth?" he demanded. "Did you bite on this pen?"

"No," I responded, offended.

"Well, somebody did!" he retorted. "This is really going to piss off Boyce! Look! Touch it! Feel it! Somebody put their teeth on this pen!"

He passed the pen back to me, and as he did, our fingers touched. Ever so slightly.

Now, of all the things I've told you, you might find this the hardest to believe, but when my skin touched Boyce's, my breath caught in my throat, and a new sensation filled my entire body. All at once. It radiated through me: a sensation I have never felt before.

It was goodness, well-being, contentment. I want to say joy, but that might be too strong a word.

What it was, was CHEMISTRY. I know Boyce felt it, too. I could see it in his face. I took hold of his hand to see if I could feel it a second time. I did. And I liked it. I liked it a lot.

It wasn't like what I felt with Wayne. That was lust. Pure and simple. This was something more.

I looked into his eyes. In that moment, the world stood still. It really did, but only for a moment. A flicker of doubt twitched in his left eye, and he pulled his hand away.

"Stop it," he said.

"Okay," I breathed.

"I'm with Boyce," he insisted. "With Laura. Whatever. I'm in love with someone else. I'm involved."

He snatched the pen from my hand and dropped it into the bag.

"Okay," I said. "I didn't mean anything—"

"Thanks for all the stuff," he interrupted gruffly. "I guess that's everything — and this is goodbye."

"Goodbye?" I exclaimed. "Why does it have to be goodbye?"

He gestured helplessly. "I don't know! What else could it be?"

"Wait!" I called as he headed for his car. "I have questions!"

He gave me a confused, conflicted look, so I thought quickly.

"Two questions. Can I ask you just two questions?"

"Okay," he acquiesced, deflating a bit. "Sure. Two questions. Shoot."

"Do you still have family in Omaha?" I ventured.

His face contracted in angry surprise. "Do I still have family in Omaha?" he repeated, shouting. "Do I still have family in Omaha? THAT is what you want to ask me? What do you care?"

"I'm Merope Goddard!" I shouted. "This is *my* life now!"

He stopped and stared at me for ten or fifteen seconds, his jaw set. Then he threw up his hands and said, "Fuck it! What the hell! Fine! Yes, I do have family in Omaha. My mother, my brother, my sister. One of each. A few cousins I never see. Okay? They are all stupid and boring as hell. They all live in Omaha, and you can have them! You're more than welcome to them, okay? Just don't tell them who I am now, or where I am now. I do not want to see or hear from them. Can you do that?"

"Sure."

"My mom's address is on the car registration, okay?"

"Yeah, thanks."

"What's the other question?"

"How did the Switcher do— I mean, when the Switcher— oh, dammit—" I was losing the thread of my question. "Did the Switcher have anything to do with taking the cylinders and the USB drive?"

"The cylinders?" he repeated. "Why do you keep calling them that? Okay, so technically they're coils or relays or embedded somethings... I don't know what. They're prototypes for a new... whatever they are. Maybe like a... solenoid thing?"

"What's a solenoid?"

"I don't know! How would I know? I'm not a technical person. What I said is probably wrong. I can't explain what they are. Boyce is always going on about their myriad applications and what else?" He thought for a moment and added, "Something about an embedded OS."

"OS? Meaning operating system?"

"I don't know. If OS means operating system, then yes, operating system. Look: I told you, I'm not technical."

"But... look — I don't know what a solenoid is, but if the cylinders are some kind of electronic device, it would have to have an input and an output. There would have to be a power source. Those cylinders are completely smooth. You can't attach them to anything."

He threw up his hands and noisily blew out a breath. "Ah, okay. I remember one more thing: It has something to do with wireless power transfer. Does that make you happy? I hope it makes sense to you, because that's all I know. That's ALL I know, okay? So stop asking me questions, and stop calling them cylinders. It makes you sound stupid."

I blinked a few times and bit my tongue to keep from answering back.

Merope went on. "Anyway, Boyce was going to sell the prototypes and stuff — the documents on the USB drive — to a Chinese firm for a lot of money. Now he thinks that he was double-crossed. Maybe someone in his company figured out what Boyce was up to, and that someone got in cahoots with the Switcher." He looked away and took a deep breath before going on.

He nodded and said, "I mean, if you think about it, the way everything went down, the Switcher *had* to know our plans in advance. In detail. I mean, like pinpoint."

I frowned, not getting it.

"Maybe they read our emails somehow," she offered.

"You planned an act of industrial espionage by email?"

He looked at me like I was stupid. "Not email emails. We shared an email account and wrote drafts to each other. We never sent them." He gave me a look that said Pretty damn clever, eh?

I nodded. There wasn't any point in explaining that there was nothing secret or safe in that approach.

Merope frowned. "*I* think that Boyce's Chinese contact made another deal. Maybe he made a deal with the Switcher himself, or maybe the Switcher started from that end first."

"Okay," I said. There seemed to be a lot of holes in the story, but it wasn't like I really needed to know.

"We almost got away, though! I was supposed to meet Boyce in the parking garage under his office building."

He heaved a heavy sigh.

"What happened?" I prompted.

"The Switcher happened. When I got there, Boyce was acting really weird. Totally out of character." He looked up, looked me in the face.

"First of all, he didn't kiss me." He spread his hands as if to indicate an obvious lapse. "See, Boyce was always touching me. He was very handsy. Kissing and touching. But this time, he kept dancing out of reach, and saying Don't touch me yet; I have a surprise for you! At the same time he was all excited and happy. Almost giddy. Smiling and grinning. Boyce is never like that.

"He led me to his car, and asked me, Hey, do you want to see something hilarious? I mean, really hilarious?" Merope frowned. "He opened the trunk, and my jaw hit the floor. There was a young woman, lying in the trunk. It was Laura. Of course, at the time, I had no idea who she was. Just this cute teenage girl in a cute outfit, lying in his trunk. Anyway, at first I thought she was dead, so I was stunned. I couldn't even speak. But then I saw her breathe, so I knew was just unconscious. Still, I was so shocked! More than shocked! I stood there like an idiot with my mouth hanging open.

"Finally I said, Boyce, this isn't funny. This isn't funny at all! Why did you do this? Who is she?

"He grinned like an idiot, and he said, She's Boyce! She is your boyfriend! Isn't that funny? Isn't that just high-larry-us? Then he sticks his face close to mine and says, Now *you* can be Boyce! Won't that be fun? and he kisses me. He grabs me an he kisses me — right on the mouth! With tongue, and everything!"

He sniffles and almost starts to cry. But he does't. He lets out a long, low, ragged breath, and wipes his nose on the back of his hand. He straightens up, and goes on.

"It felt like he punched me in the gut, and I fell to the ground. Then, the weirdest thing, I was looking up at myself, standing there grinning. Grinning! I saw myself put the prototypes and the USB into my bag, and then I watched myself walk away."

He sniffed and took a few deep, long breaths.

After a long pause, I asked him, "What did you do then?"

"I closed the trunk and drove to Boyce's condo. I waited for Laura to wake up.

"It turns out that before I got there, Laura met Boyce in the garage when he was standing near his car. At the time, SHE was really the Switcher, not a young girl. So... she came up to him, near his car. Just before she approached him, before he saw her, she drugged herself. See, when she came up to Boyce, she was starting to pass out. She asked him for help, you know, as if she really needed help. The bitch!

"Boyce thought she was a druggie, so he didn't want anything to do with her, but she kept getting closer and asking for help. Then her head spins, and she gets this wicked, evil grin, and says, I want to show you a cool move, and she collapses onto him."

I was puzzled for a minute. He let me work it out. "So Laura fell against Boyce and ended up being switched. But Laura was already drugged?"

"Right. She was nearly unconscious. Boyce ends up being Laura, drugged. The Switcher, who was now Boyce, lifted her into the trunk and waited for me. Boyce and I figured all this out later. See, Laura had a drug and a needle in her fanny pack. She injected herself in the thigh." Boyce pointed to a spot on his leg.

"Okay. Wow." I was going to have to think about that for a while. While it would be interesting to continue to dig into the story, I still had other questions. "So... now... do you think the Chinese firm will still want to pay for the USB drive?"

"Royce thinks so. I have no idea."

He didn't sound very hopeful.

He looked at the ground for a few beats, then said, "I better go. Boyce will be all kinds of pissed off if I'm gone too long." Then, remembering, he asked, "Hey — did you talk to law enforcement about this? The police? The FBI? Anybody? About the prototypes, the USB?"

"Yeah," I said, and as her face began to register alarm, I quickly added, "They were completely uninterested. Apparently Boyce's company didn't report the theft. So the FBI thought it was all in my head."

"Oh," he said, her level of alarm dropping. "Are you sure?"

"Very," I said. "It really pissed me off. They treated me like some cheap attention-seeker."

He smiled. "See? It pays to be a man. They would have given you more respect if you walked in as a man."

"Okay," I said, "I don't know." I couldn't agree or disagree. "Anyway, they told me that Boyce's company didn't report the theft."

His eyebrow's lifted, but he didn't say anything.

I could see he wanted to leave, but I felt the need to leave a window open... some way to keep in touch, or to get in touch again. I mean, he used to be me. I might need his help, and frankly it looked like old Merope would need mine. So I asked, "Listen, just, um, before you go — can I give you a hug?"

"A hug?"

"This has been the absolute weirdest week of my life. Something kind, something human, would be nice. Do you mind?"

He shrugged and almost laughed. But he said, "Why not? What the hell, sure!"

I stepped closer to him, and a little awkwardly, we embraced. He gave me a squeeze. I gave him a squeeze. I heard his back let out a soft crack. I didn't mean to do that — I didn't even squeeze him that hard, but in any case, he gave a soft grunt of surprise — and in the next moment, something stiffened and came to attention between his legs.

I cleared my throat but I didn't let go.

"Oh, yeah, hey," he said. "Sorry — I'm not 100% used to that thing yet." But he didn't let go, either.

"It's okay," I said, gently extracting myself from the embrace. "You'll get used to it, but often you'll find it has a mind of its own."

"I've been seeing that," he agreed, rubbing his chin. "It's like the heart wants what the heart wants — except, it's not the heart." He laughed at his own witticism and got back into his car, his arousal still largely apparent.

I stood there, feeling once again like some kind of idiot.

He started up the engine and was about to put the car in gear, but I stepped forward rapped on his window with my phone.

"Hey!" I shouted. "Call me. Anytime. Okay?"

He smiled and nodded. Then he rolled down his window.

"Hey," he asked, "where did you find those Monopoly tokens?"

"They were in your car," I replied. "Do they have some significance to you?"

He laughed. "No. I have no idea where they came from. But... shit accumulates, you know?"

"Yeah, that reminds me," I shot back. "Why was your car so dirty? Did you ever clean it?"

His eyes and mouth opened wide. "My car was dirty?" he exclaimed. "My CAR was dirty? What are you, my mother?"

"Hey, it's just a question!" I told him, defensively.

"Oh, God, my mom will love you!" he retorted, dripping with sarcasm, shaking his head. "Go to Omaha, clean your car, and go visit my mother!" he exclaimed. "Live the dream, why don't you?"

With that, he drove off, leaving me alone on level four.



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